Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: "21 & Over"

"21 & Over" is a typical college party movie, but with a little ambition, or at least finesse.

It's written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who did the screenplays for the "Hangover" movies, the first of which was actually quite clever in its story construction and character development. Imagine that crew during their college years, reveling in a wild night when one of their number turns the magical age of 21, and you've got the combination to this cinematic safe.

I can't really recommend it, but I at least appreciated some things about it. The three main characters are distinctive and played well by their actors, creating a clear presence beyond the usual spectacle of crazy guys getting wasted and making fools of themselves -- though there is indeed plenty of that. The trio all get to spend an extended amount of screen time nearly naked, with the birthday boy celebrating in a red bra and a teddy bear glued to his nethers.

Miles Teller and Skylar Astin, as lifelong friends Miller and Casey, respectively, in particular have a motor-mouthed repartee of observations and insults that is pleasantly reminiscent of the guys from "Swingers" a generation back. Their easy patter and they way they rub shoulders as they constantly put each down has an authentic vibe.

Justin Chon as Jeff Chang has less to do, since he's the newly-legal drinker who spends most of the movie passed out or altered from overindulgence, but you believe him as part of this threesome.

Incidentally, Chon is actually 10 years older than the character he's portraying, while his two co-stars are merely in their mid-20s. By Hollywood casting standards, that's about par for the course.

The plot is that Jeff Chang -- he's always referred to that way, almost as a single world "Jeffchang" -- must be ready for a medical school interview the next morning, to which he's being chaperoned by his impossibly strict father.

Alas, Miller and Casey forget where Jeff Chang lives -- even though they were just there themselves -- and he's too inebriated to tell them. So they spend the entire night wandering around the campus of fictional Northern University, stumbling into one party after another.

They encounter Nicole (Sarah Wright), a toothy blonde who finds an instant rapport with Casey, but also Randy (Jonathan Keltz), who is a male cheerleader with serious anger management issues.

Along the way they steal a truck, jump out of windows, wander into the den of an oddly masochistic sorority of Latinas, must defeat a series of drinking games to reach the tower of a mystical R.A., and similar hijinks.

There's nothing really new about "21 & Over" that we haven't already seen in "Animal House" and every other college raunch comedy going forward. But I at least appreciated the fact the cast and crew tried to keep the characters from being totally generic slaves to the debauchery.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Jack the Giant Slayer"

Just a short review here today; Joe Shearer is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so head there to get his complete write-up.

There sure is a trend lately of turning children's fairy tales into splashy CGI action spectacles. Last summer's "Snow White and the Huntsman" was the testosterone-ized counterpart to "Mirror, Mirror." Earlier this year we had "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," a title that suggests how successful it would be. Now "Jack and the Giant Slayer."

All these movies have employed the same methodology: Take a well-known (and conveniently public domain) story, punch it up with huge action sequences, add scary boogums rendered with computer animation, and then slather it all with a dark-and-grimy look and mood.

"Jack" is easily the best of the lot, perhaps because it doesn't take it self quite so seriously. Yes, there are some profoundly silly moments, but the cast and crew seem to recognize and embrace them. Stanley Tucci as the titular villain is practically doing a stand-up routine in medieval garb.

Nicholas Hoult is by design the least interesting character in the picture as Jack, a pleasant, placid farmboy stand-in for the audience in this high-flying adventure. There's a beautiful princess -- of course! -- played by Eleanor Tomlinson who's in need of rescuing. Ewan McGregor has a nice supporting turn as the plucky captain of the guard, and Ian McShane is around to do that growly thing that McShane keeps getting called upon to do.

The giants are the real stars of the movie. Thirty feet tall, hairy, lumpy and barefoot, they stroll about their kingdom in the skies, having been banished there by a mythical human king who wielded a magic crown to command them. They spend their days eating sheep, picking their noses and issuing troubling sounds and smells from various parts of their bodies.

Basically, it's Big Bachelor Heaven.

Anyway, those pesky magic beans turn up, accidentally get dropped in some water and grow into a massive beanstalk. Unfortunately, the princess is trapped inside Jack's house at the time and gets carried into the sky. The beanstalk also provides a convenient mode of transport for the giants to come back down and wage destruction.

Bill Nighy does the voice of the giant general Fallon, who has a second head that is not quite as developed. The little one mimics the speech of the big one, but in slurred, halting words. It's almost like the giant king having his own jester permanently attached to him, whispering idiot nothings into his ear.

Director Bryan Singer stages clean, thrilling action scenes and encourages his cast to keep the mood light. And the CGI melee is decently gruesome in a PG-13 sort of way, with plenty of unfortunate extras getting squished underfoot by giants or become fodder for their craving for man-meat.

"Jack the Giant Slayer" is a big, goofy thrill ride that manages to metastasize its fairy tale legend without getting too full of itself.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Vide review: "The Master"

Ambitious, vexing, jubilant and depressing, “The Master” is a film that neither Hollywood nor audiences quite knew what to do with.

It was first touted as “the Scientology movie,” received respectful but somewhat puzzled reviews, and was then largely ignored by ticket buyers. But it scored three Oscar nominations for its wonderful acting, including Joaquin Phoenix, who I think gave the performance of the year.

It is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since “There Will Be Blood,” and if there’s any mainstream filmmaker today who deserves to be called an auteur, it’s him.

The tale is about Freddie Quell (Phoenix), an unhinged, alcoholic veteran struggling to assimilate back into society after World War II. He stumbles into the den of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a quasi-religious order called “The Cause,” and the two men each discover the other satisfies a yearning in themselves they didn’t even recognize.

Freddie is a twitchy wreck, a guy who suspects that his mind isn’t right and is constantly trying to fake normalcy so he can fit in with those around him. Dodd is bombastic and slithery, a guy who’s been deluding others with notions of his self-importance for so long, he’s even fooled himself. In Freddie he sees a perfect test case for his odd theories.

“The Master” is less concerned with plot than the strange, spinning dance between this pair, with other characters such as Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) forced to resentfully orbit around the gravitational pull they share.

It’s not always a smooth cinematic ride, but one worth taking.

Video extras are decent without being terribly expansive. There are three making-of featurettes, including “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute collection of outtakes and additional scenes set to music. It also comes with “Let There Be Light,” a 1946 documentary directed by John Huston about mentally wounded WWII veterans returning from war.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, February 25, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Betrayal" (1957)

It's a truism of mainstream movies that it's OK for the hero to get beat up and injured, but not permanently maimed. Once the protagonist is crippled, the audience changes their feelings for him/her. They're no longer identifying with him, but instead feel pity and possibly a tinge of disgust. Harsh, but true, especially about audiences back in 1957.

Even today, when there are so many mechanisms to help the disabled live full and satisfying lives, not to mention generally more positive attitudes toward them, people are terrified by the idea of losing a limb, their mental capacities, or their sight.

So the British film "The Betrayal" is somewhat daring in that its hero, Michael McCall, is a blind man who became blind after being shot by the Germans during an escape attempt from a POW camp. What's notable is that he's a blind man who's out for revenge. I think the fact that he's on a quest like this makes the character seem more virile and embraceable as a main character. The fact that's proactive and bold, rather than leaning on others because of his handicap, makes him somewhat to root for.

Needless to say, the movie also provides McCall with a beautiful young girl who falls head over heels for him in a matter of two days. While predictable, at least the script -- by Brian Clemens and Eldon Howard -- didn't have him magically regain his sight with a conk to the head at the end or something.

Ernest Morris directs with a heavy hand, in what is obviously what they would have called a B picture in the States. It essentially plays out as a crime procedural with a blind guy leading the investigation.

Philip Friend plays McCall, who has aristocratic manners and lots of confidence. Friend does a rather convincing job of playing an unsighted man, letting his gaze seem unfocused and wandering. It's no surprise that Janet Hillyer (American Diana Decker) at first doesn't realize he is blind. McCall eschews a white cane and dark sunglasses, tapping about with a regular cane like an English countryside squire.

McCall is after a British traitor who warned the Germans about the escape attempt he was organizing. All the other prisoners were killed, and Michael shot in the face and blinded. He spends the first couple of years after the war trying to locate his tormentor through the war crimes tribunal, but since he can't identify the man it's hopeless. He's convinced to undergo surgery to fix his scars, enters the perfume business with the help of a fellow vet and lets the matter drop.

Flash to 1957, and McCall overhears the voice of the man he's been seeking while on a business trip to Paris. The filmmakers quickly reveal that it is Bartel (Philip Saville), the head of the fashion company where Janet works as a model. We spend the rest of the movie playing catch-up as we wait for the intrepid duo to figure out that it's Bartel.

They spend much of the time working off a guest list to find the man, never thinking it was the man hosting the meeting rather than one of the people he invited. As detective work goes, it's more Laurel & Hardy than Hardy Boys.

"The Betrayal" is a rather ham-fisted affair, but the reason it fails isn't because the man at the center of the story can't see. I give it points for originality, but subtract them back for its obvious plot and gooey love story.

2 stars out of four

(Apologies ... the film is apparently obscure enough that I couldn't find any video clips or DVD links.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: "Snitch"

"I just wanna see The Rock be The Rock."

Thus spaketh my neighbor a couple of seats over at the screening of "Snitch," where she and her companion commented -- loudly and frequently -- upon their views of the new movie starring Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as professional wrestler The Rock.

I don't know where these amateur Eberts came from or how they came to be sitting in the press row, but I think she was actually speaking for a lot of people who won't like this movie. Specifically, those who think Johnson and people who look like him should only make big, dumb action movies in which they deliver a quip after blowing some guy away.

You see, "Snitch" is not that sort of the film. It stars Dwayne Johnson, not The Rock, and features Johnson straining to reach for something higher and more honest as an actor ... and succeeding.

It's a gritty drama, not an action movie, and Johnson is playing a regular guy instead of a Superman. When somebody points a gun in his face, he's frozen with terror. While the villains strut and sneer, he cowers and quakes.

Johnson never takes off his shirt, intimidates anyone with his size, and about the only thing he says in anger is to holler at his wife, "Are the sprinklers on?!?"

The film, ably directed by Ric Roman Waugh from a screenplay he co-wrote with Justin Haythe, is based on a true story that was featured on a PBS documentary. It's about a father who will go to any ends to help his son, including breaking the law and putting the rest of his family at risk.

John Matthews is a successful Missouri businessman in the construction/trucking industry. He lives in a big house, has a beautiful wife and daughter, and seems to have few worries. But then his teenage son from a previous marriage, Jason (Rafi Gavron), gets busted for distribution of Ecstasy.

The kid's not a drug dealer, just a sap who got rolled by his friend. But the federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) says she's bound by minimum-sentence laws that could put John's son away until AARP age. She'll only reduce his prison term if Jason snitches on another drug pusher, which he refuses to do.

So John takes it upon himself to bring down a big-time dealer on his own. His first effort ends in disaster, but he gets craftier. He recruits one of his employees, Daniel (Jon Bernthal), who did time for drugs, offering $10,000 to make an introduction to some of his old contacts.

This leads to an increasingly dangerous climb up the ladder of the narcotics chain of command, from local kingpin Malik (a sly, charismatic Michael Kenneth Williams) to Mexican cartel boss (Benjamin Bratt).

Intending it to be a one-and-down deal, John finds himself cornered between the drug lords on the one hand and the politically ambitious prosecutor on the other. Meanwhile, Daniel suspects his motives, Malik starts dropping by John's house to terrorize his family, and even the undercover cop (Barry Pepper) handling the case drops hints that maybe he's in too deep.

Johnson does eventually get to do some Rock-ish things toward the end, but he does so in duress rather than out of any sense of righteous rage. These perilous scenes are all the more convincing because his character is ordinary and exposed.

In her own way and without really intending to do so, my loudmouthed, erstwhile fellow critic has delivered a much more brilliant review of "Snitch" than I ever could. For someone like her, this movie could only a letdown, which should be a hint for the rest of us.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013 Oscar picks and predictions

Conventional wisdom is out the window with this year's Academy Awards. If you're a film lover who likes to see the Oscars spread around to the most deserving winners instead of steamrolled into the lap of a dominant film, then 2013 is bound to be one of the most exciting years ever.

If you're in the prognosticating business of predicting who will win, though, it becomes something of a nightmare.

With no "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" or "The King's Speech" guaranteed a certain number of wins, it turns each race into a shifting landscape. Technical awards that usually follow a leading film are in flux with no clear favorite. Movies that emerged early as contenders have fallen by the wayside, while dark horses -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Amour," "Life of Pi" -- racked up an impressive number of nominations.

This year's nominations will probably be remembered as much for the number of glaring omissions as who actually takes home the statuette. I'm still waiting for an explanation on why John Hawkes didn't get an acting nod for "The Sessions."

So here are my annual picks and predictions. I generally get around 60% to 70% of the categories right, but I have a feeling my batting average is going to be lower this year.

As usual I'll make my prediction of who I think WILL win the award and my pick of who I think SHOULD win. Where appropriate I'll suggest nominee(s) who didn't get a nod who deserved to -- and I'll even tell you whose place they should take.

I'm also going to try something new with a backup prediction. Since this is a helter-skelter year, I'll try to demonstrate my prowess by selecting who will win if my pick is wrong. On the one hand, it gives me a safety net -- if my backup pick wins, I can say that I got it right the second time. Of course, if I whiff with two tries, you'll know I'm not as hot of an Oscar Nostradamus as I thought.

Best Picture

 "Argo" will win Best Picture.

Just a few weeks ago when the nominations for the Academy Awards came out, I would have told you that any chance of Ben Affleck's dramatic thriller taking the top prize went down the tubes the moment he failed to make the short list for Best Director. It is exceedingly rare for a film to win Best Picture without its director being recognized. The last time was "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990. Before that, you'd have to go back to the early days of the Academy to find another.

Going into the awards season, it seemed like a three-way race for Best Picture, with "Argo" joined by "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty." But when Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were surprised shutouts for Best Director, it seemed to leave the field open for "Lincoln." If anything, it set up "Silver Linings Playbook" as the stalking horse, based on its surprisingly strong showing -- the first film in more than 30 years to receive nominations for Best Picture, director, screenplay and all four acting categories.

But since then, "Argo" has virtually swept the preliminary awards. Affleck even won the Director's Guild of American prize, which historically has been the best predictor of the Oscar will go to. That leads me to a few conclusions.

First, there is a distinct backlash against "Zero Dark Thirty." Despite what I saw as the film's carefully nonpartisan approach to the war on terror, the industry has decided it "endorses" waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods that many dub torture. Hollywood tilts about as left as it gets, so don't expect 'ZDT" to pick up many awards. A goose egg is not improbable. This may also explain Bigelow's snub.

Second, Affleck may have suffered from the effect where all the Academy voters assume he'd got nominated anyway, and wanted to spend their votes on a lower-profile pick. So everybody thought everyone else was voting for Affleck, and it turns out not enough did.This is unofficially known as the "Paul Giamatti Vote," after his (still-shocking) snub for "Sideways" when his cast mates were all nominated.

Third, even though "Lincoln" is universally respected, I think most people regard it as a great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis with just a pretty-good movie around it. Personally I think the screenplay is wobbly -- too many self-regarding moments on the one hand, and a superfluous ending on the other.

No other contender broke through. "Les Misérbles" was my top film of the year, but few seem to agree. So this looks like a race between "Argo" and the rest of the pack.

Prediction: Argo
I really meant...: Lincoln
Pick: Les Misérbles
Swap: "The Session" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" both deserved nods. Since the Academy only nominated nine films this year instead of the maximum of 10, as I see it I only need to boot one. I choose "Amour," a well-made but terribly unoriginal French drama.

Best Actress

There's really no clear front-runner here. It's notable that four of the five nominees were from movies that were not dominated by the lead female character. In other words, the best performances by an actress were usually set off by a strong turn by a male actor. The only exception is "Zero Dark Thirty," though you could make a case for Naomi Watts in "The Impossible."

In her short, fantastically successful run in Hollywood, Jessica Chastain has been a workhorse, starring in 11 features over the past two years and earning two Oscar nominations. But can her strong, willful turn in "Zero Dark Thirty" overcome the backlash against the film I described earlier?

This clearly seems to be between Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence from "Silver Linings Playbook." They each won a Golden Globe, though they divide it up into dramatic films and comedies/musicals -- a pretty useless distinction, in my mind.

But Lawrence won the Screen Actors Guild Award, and actors make up the largest voting bloc in the Academy. So the young ingenue -- this is her second nomination at age 22 -- will not have to wait long to take home a golden statue.

I've made no secret of my disdain for the nominations of Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhané Wallis, neither of whom I think is deserving. But apparently the idea of having the oldest nominee ever and the youngest nominee ever in the same year was too tempting.

Prediction: Jennifer Lawrence
I really meant...: Jessica Chastain
Pick: Chastain
Swap: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed" and Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock" for Wallis and Riva.

 Best Actor

If there's any category that does appear to be a mortal lock this year, it's Daniel Day-Lewis for the title role in "Lincoln." And I'm not going to take anything away from him, he's terrific in the part. He took some real risks, such as employing a tinny high voice that is historically authentic but probably was disconcerting to contemporary audiences used to the idea of great men speaking in a deep rumble. It's a carefully constructed performance, almost like a suit tailor-made with each laborious stitch.

But for my money Joaquin Phoenix gave the performance of the year in "The Master," playing a deeply disturbed man who is trying so hard to conceal his own defects. It's the type of role that employs a lot of "behavior," outward tics and expressions, but is rooted in a deep emotional center. After all the hullabaloo over his retirement stunt a couple of years back, Phoenix blew me away.

As for the rest, Hugh Jackman was the anchor of underperforming "Les Misérbles," Bradley Cooper is still too close to those "Hangover" comedies to get the benefit of the doubt, and Denzel Washington mainly got nominated because ... he's Denzel Washington.

Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis
I really meant...: Hugh Jackman
Pick: Joaquin Phoenix
Swap: John Hawkes was just amazing in "The Sessions," and if he'd gotten a nomination I'd say he would be the only one capable of pushing Day-Lewis. Alas. Tough call, but I'd probably knock out Jackman for Hawkes.

Best Supporting Actress

This one also looks fairly well wrapped up, with Anne Hathaway deservedly sweeping the prelims for her small but powerful role in "Les Misérbles." As soon as I saw her sing that heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream," I knew this race was pretty much decided. Her only real competition is Sally Field in "Lincoln," but I think enough people saw the Mrs. Lincoln character as annoying and poorly written to give Hathaway the edge.

I'm amazed at the lack of buzz for Helen Hunt in "The Sessions," or for that movie in general. As Hathaway herself joked when co-hosting the Oscar ceremony a couple years back, "It used to be that when you got naked, you got nominated!" That certainly held true from Hunt's revealing turn, but it appears the nomination is all she'll get.

Prediction: Anne Hathaway
I really meant...: Sally Field
Pick: Hathaway
Swap: Jacki Weaver had such a small, inconsequential part in "Silver Linings Playbook," that her nomination was one of the biggest surprises. Still, it was a pretty weak year for this category, and I'm not sure who else you'd pick. Maybe Emma Watson in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower?"

Best Supporting Actor

This one is totally wide open. Consider: Every single nominee is a veteran actor -- average age: 63 -- who has previously won an Academy Award.

Christoph Waltz and Alan Arkin would seem to be the low men, since their roles essentially provided comic relief -- not an endeavor typically rewarded by the Academy.

I'm guessing it's between Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln" and Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook." Sentiment might swing late toward De Niro -- if you can believe it, it's been 20 years since his last Oscar nomination. Plus, Jones' curmudgeonly ways have led him to be respected but not particularly liked in Hollywood.

I think Jones was hands-down the winner, taking a meaty role and absolutely tearing it to pieces. He made anti-slavery zealot Thaddeus Stevens into a force of nature who dominated every scene he was in -- including those with the title character, arguably.

Prediction: Robert De Niro
I really meant...: Tommy Lee Jones
Pick: Tommy Lee Jones
Swap: Hey, I like Alan Arkin. Everyone likes Alan Arkin. And he had a fun, breezy role in "Argo." But let's be honest: It's just not a substantial enough part for an Oscar nomination. I'll take Jude Law in "Anna Karenina," about the only outstanding thing in that mess of a movie. Or Scoot McNairy, whole role was pivotal to the success of "Argo."

Best Original Screenplay

"Zero Dark Thirty" would seem to be the frontrunner here, but again ... that backlash thing. Hollywood is a town of grudges that can get held over for a long, long time -- remember all the animosity toward Elia Kazan, one of the great 20th century filmmakers, at the time of his honorary Oscar for his role in the 1950s blacklisting?

That leaves us with "Amour," the only other nominated film that is also up for Best Picture. The fact that a foreign language film got so many nominations indicates strong support for it. I think the Franco-love from "The Artist" will carry over another year.

As for my pick, it's between the meticulously researched and constructed history of "Zero Dark Thirty" or Tarantino's wild, fun, genre-hopping "Django Unchained." I give it to "ZDT" because Tarantino's script has a few flaws, notably a protracted ending that robs the jaunt of some of its juice.

The Academy has loved to use the screenplay categories as a "make up" award for a film they want to reward but doesn't have a chance in the Best Film  or Best Director races. So I think "Django" is the dark horse here.

Prediction: Amour
I really meant...: Django Unchained
Pick: Zero Dark Thirty
Swap: Have you seen "Safety Not Guaranteed?" No? I'm not surprised, hardly anyone has. Go rent it, watch it, and tell me it's not more deserving of a screenplay nod than "Moonrise Kingdom" or "Flight."

Best Adapted Screenplay

This one's really a tough call, a three-way race between "Silver Linings Playbook," "Argo" and "Lincoln." And "Beasts of the Southern Wild" could sneak in as a way to reward a promising newcomer.

As I've stated I think the screenplay for "Lincoln" undermines the film in several ways, but Academy voters may recognize the difficulty in turning a historical book into a vibrant feature film. And "Argo" may get points deducted for some recent controversy about bending the truth in that final sequence where the Americans make their escape from the Iranian airport.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say "Playbook" sneaks in here.

Prediction: Silver Linings Playbook
I really meant...: Lincoln
Pick: Argo
Swap: The omissions of "The Sessions" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" are particularly grating. I'd knock out "Beasts" and "Life of Pi."

Best Director

At this point it seems clear that if Ben Affleck had been nominated, he would win. But since he's not, and "Zero Dark Thirty" is also not in the running, it appears to be a wide-open contest.

"Life of Pi" is probably the film that most represents a director's singular vision, and Ang Lee is a past winner. Michael Heneke can't be counted out, given all the (misplaced) support for "Amour." Steven Spielberg would seem to be the 7-footer in a jumping contest, given his stature in showbiz.

I'm going to take another flier on "Silver Linings Playbook" and guess David O. Russell will complete the restoration of his reputation that began with "The Fighter." He's seen as an actors' director, the sort who puts performances and mood above pyrotechnics and twisty plotting. And that may be enough points for the gold.

Prediction: David O. Russell
I really meant...: Steven Spielberg
Pick: Lee
Swap: Affleck, Bigelow and Tarantino all deserve to be here. Ditching Haneke and Benh Zeitlin of "Beasts" are easy calls. I'd probably knock out Spielberg next. I also think Tom Hooper deserved to be in for "Les Miz," but I can't see anyone else I'd boot for him.

Animated Feature Film

An extraordinarily weak year for animation, and the best movie -- "Rise of the Guardians" -- didn't even get nominated.

This has become the Pixar-by-default award, but it has two other competitors from the Disney umbrella: "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frankenweenie." And I haven't met anyone who didn't think "Brave" was rather flat. I think "Ralph" is the best of the rest, and the Academy will think so, too.

Prediction: Wreck-It Ralph
I really meant...: Brave
Pick: Wreck-It Ralph
Swap: "Rise of the Guardians" instead of the staunchly mediocre "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."


"Life of Pi" was just visually gorgeous, with "Skyfall" a distant second.

Prediction: Life of Pi
I really meant...: Skyfall
Pick: Life of Pi

Costume Design

"Mirror, Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" were both nominated in this category. I'd just like to point out that "Mirror" got one more nomination than did "Perks of Being a Wallflower," and "Snow" (also up for visual effects) got twice as many as "The Sessions."

Prediction: Les Misérbles
I really meant...: Anna Karenina
Pick: Anna Karenina
Swap: "Django Unchained" for "Snow White and the Huntsman."

Documentary Feature

There are actually some pretty high-profile pictures in the running this year, though the much-talked-about "Bully" did not make the short list. The old joke used to be that whichever documentary was about the Holocaust would win. Since there are none this year, we move to the default position of whichever movie about Israeli-Palestinian relations wins. Except there are two of those. (I said this was a hard year, didn't I?) So I think they'll cancel each other out.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is the feel-good choice, but voters tend to favor very serious subjects in this category. That leaves the movie about sexual abuse in the military with a clear field.

Prediction: The Invisible War
I really meant...: How To Survive a Plague
Pick: Searching for Sugar Man

Documentary Short

I haven't seen any of these, so it's a total stab in the dark.

Prediction: Innocente
I really meant...: Kings Point

Film Editing

This category tends to follow the Best Picture winner, so I'm betting on "Argo" to win. Personally I'll take the harrowing last half hour of "Zero Dark Thirty" over just about anything I saw last year in terms of kinetic energy.

Prediction: Argo
I really meant...: Zero Dark Thirty
Pick: Zero Dark Thirty

Foreign Language Film

This seems like a pretty easy call, given that "Amour" also broke out with noms for best picture, director, actress and screenplay. It's also the only one of the quintet I've seen. (That isn't unusual ... Indianapolis usually gets all the foreign language nominees, but it may take until mid-year.)

Prediction: Amour
I really meant...: No

Makeup and Hairstyling

I'm not sure when this category was changed to include hair as well as makeup, but that could be important. With so many jokes about Hugh Jackman's Michael Landon 'do, that would seem to doom "Les Misérbles." But its only other competition is "The Hobbit" and "Hitchcock," both of which are (unfairly) perceived as underachievers. There were also jokes about Anthony Hopkins' fat suit as Hitch, and there's nothing in "Hobbit" we hadn't seen before in the "Lord of the Rings" films.

Prediction: Les Misérbles
I really meant...: Hitchcock
Pick: Les Misérbles

Music: Original Score

A notoriously difficult category to predict, since judging musical scores is a pretty subjective exercise.

Prediction: Life of Pi
I really meant...: Argo
Pick: Skyfall

Music: Original Song

The thought of "Ted" winning makes me quiver in my boots. I'm a fan of Seth McFarlane's TV work, but how is it he gets picked to host the Oscars? He's made exactly one movie, and it was a pretty lackluster comedy. I'm guessing Adele will win for "Skyfall."

Prediction: Skyfall
I really meant...: Les Misérbles
Pick: Skyfall

Production Design

Perhaps the most underrated category in terms of importance. Production design includes the sets, props, backgrounds -- basically, everything you see in a movie that isn't an actor or a special effect. A lot of strong contenders this year with dense, imaginative environments that envelop the action.

Prediction: Lincoln
I really meant...: Les Misérbles
Pick: Les Misérbles

Short Film: Animated

Prediction: Paperman
I really meant...: Adam and Dog
Pick: Paperman

Short Film: Live Action

Prediction: Death of a Shadow
I really meant...: Asad
Pick: Death of a Shadow

Sound Edting

Prediction: Skyfall
I really meant...: Zero Dark Thirty
Pick: Zero Dark Thirty

Sound Mixing

Prediction: Les Misérbles
I really meant...: Argo
Pick: Les Misérbles

Visual Effects

Prediction: Life of Pi
I really meant...: Prometheus
Pick: Life of Pi

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Video review: "Game of Thrones: Season 2"

When it comes to cinematic adaptations of monstrously huge fantasy literary franchises like “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” there are two schools of thought. On the one hand are people who think they run too long and are self-indulgent -- the sort of folks who joke about “LOTR” having five endings.

Then there are those like myself who love to see every subplot and nuance of our beloved books captured onscreen with a slavish devotion to detail. For those, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is the nirvana of sword & sorcery fealty.

HBO is taking each book of George R.R. Martin’s series, “A Song of Fire and Ice,” and turning it into an entire season of shows. Ten hours may seem like a lot of screen time, but brevity is not in Martin’s wheelhouse -- the books average around 1,000 pages apiece.

(In fact, the especially plot-heavy third book is going to be split up into two seasons, starting with Season 3 debuting in March.)

Season 2 saw a considerable ramping up in the world war overtaking the land of Westeros, as the death of King Robert Baratheon left the succession to the throne in dispute. Space and the enormity of the narrative prohibits describing it in its entirety. Suffice to say it comes down to the competing claims of three clans: the rich and power-hungry Lannisters, the gruff but noble Stark northmen and the Baratheon brothers.

Characters slide into the foreground and then recede with the ebb and flow of the plot. The key figures in season 2 are Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the brilliantly devious dwarf whose loyalty to his clan goes unappreciated; Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), widow of murdered Ned and mother of rebel leader Robb; Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), scion of a deposed monarchy who bides her time across the sea gathering power, including three dragon hatchlings; and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), a young Stark bastard who finds purpose battling an ancient evil in the northern hinterlands as part of the Night’s Watch.

The show does deviate from the book in ways both big and small, such as Robb Stark’s speedy romance and marriage. But the story takes on a grandiose, epic feel as it builds toward the huge battle of Blackwater.

For true fantasy fans, “Game of Thrones” is a must-see.

It is being released with a host of video extras, including 12 commentary tracks, character profiles, interviews with cast and crew, making-of featurettes and more on the DVD. The Blu-ray edition adds animated histories of Martin’s world, an in-episode guide, hidden “dragon eggs” and more.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 4 stars

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956)

Poor "Around the World in 80 Days." If it wasn't so burdened by that mantle of having won a Best Picture Academy Award, I think people would regard it much more fondly. Instead they'd see a fun, light piece of extravagant entertainment -- pure spectacle for its own sake.

When "World" does get mentioned these days, it's usually not too far from the words "worst Best Picture winner ever" or something to that effect. And indeed, while watching the picture I was rarely able to push that distinction out of my mind. It's a thoroughly engaging, fun movie with massive production values and featuring a host of movie stars in cameo roles -- many of them blink-and-you'll-miss-it fast, such as the piano player in an Old West saloon turning around to reveal Frank Sinatra's wordless profile.

But Best Picture? There's simply nothing about "World" that announces itself as Best Picture material. Its other competitors from 1956 were "The King and I," "The Ten Commandments," "Giant" and "Friendly Persuasion" -- not exactly an outstanding cinematic year, by most reckonings. Perhaps only 1952 beats it out for the weakest Academy Awards field ever, when "The Greatest Show on Earth" took the top prize.

"World" also won Oscars for cinematography and editing (both deserved) as well as screenplay and musical score. It was based on the Jules Verne book, with many changes and embellishments -- e.g., the sequence of the two men riding over the Alps in an air balloon, perhaps the most iconic image from the movie, is a total fabrication.

It tells the tale of straitlaced British adventurer Phileas Fogg, played by David Niven, who accepts a challenge from fellow members of the snooty Reform Club to travel around the world in 80 days, with 20,000 pounds wagered. In 1872, this is considered an astonishing feat. But Fogg, a stand-in for the futurist Verne himself, muses that it will be accomplished in 80 hours eventually.

Just a few days earlier, some bold criminal stole a fortune from the Bank of England, with Fogg the prime suspect. Certainly the way he throws money around on his trip -- purchasing and then discarding the balloon, an elephant and even a steamship -- suggests something nefarious. He spends far more than he could hope to win from his wager.

Thus Fix (Robert Newton in his final role), a police inspector, shadows Fogg most of the trip, perpetually waiting on a warrant to arrive in the right place so he can apprehend his supposed culprit. Of course, he could just hold him for questioning until the warrant arrives, but then we wouldn't have a movie.

Also coming along for half the trip is Shirley MacLaine as Indian (!) Princess Aouda, whom Fogg rescues from a ritual sacrifice ceremony. Aouda says and does astonishingly little for most of the trip, finally casting some doe eyes at Fogg near the end and, in what must have been shockingly funny in 1956, asking him to marry her. The porcelain-skinned MacLaine, slightly decorated with dusky makeup, is most unconvincing as a native denizen of the Near East.

Also along for the trip is Passepartout, Fogg's valet whom he just hired earlier the same day he sets off on his excursion. A former circus gymnast and jack-of-all-trades, Passepartout has an array of skills that come in handy throughout the trip, including playing at bullfighter for a reluctant benefactor. Fogg has run through his serving men at an astonishing pace because of their failure to meet his persnickety standards, but Passepartout is the unlikely one who measures up.

A mild-mannered ladies' man with patched trousers, mustachio tips and a bowler hat reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Passepartout is played by Mexican superstar Cantinflas, considered by man (including Chaplin) the greatest international clown of his era. Hollywood had been begging Cantinflas to make a movie with them for years, and he had always refused until "World," when he was in his mid-40s. He would make only a few more American pictures before returning to Mexican cinema.

Passepartout actually dominates the story for a good chunk of the narrative, playing the comedic protagonist while Fogg operates as the straight man. In fact, Niven received top billing only in English-speaking countries, while Cantinflas was billed as the lead everywhere else in the globe. (The casting would follow a similar theme for the film's underwhelming 2004 remake, with Jackie Chan as Passepartout and the relatively unknown Steve Coogan as Fogg.)

My favorite part was when Fogg is making the final leg of his journey across the Atlantic and the steamship runs out of coal. Niven buys the ship from the captain, and proceeds to have the crew tear apart every inch of the vessel that is flammable and toss it into the boiler. By the end they're riding on a floating barge with an engine room and a pair of wheel paddles, and not much else.

Directed by Michael Anderson with a screenplay adaptation by James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman, "Around the World in 80 Days" is light, carefree entertainment, filled with plenty of laughs and fun. All the cameos by stars end up seeming rather pointless, but there's no denying it's an engaging flick, even at a hair over three hours long.

Watching it got me to thinking about this year's Best Picture race. "Argo" had been considered an early front-runner for that award, but a growing backlash seemed to conclude that it was too unserious to be named Best Picture. Or, more accurately, that its story theme did not have the prerequisite "heaviness" to earn that distinction.

"Argo" is indeed a dramatic film, but it has plenty of moments of levity, with Alan Arkin's character as the nexus for the frivolity. The overall tone is of a crime caper -- a deadly serious one to be sure, but one in which we know the good guys get out of Iran safely.

"Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" are both more classic versions of a Best Picture pedigree -- historical dramas based on real figures, with a heavy spritz of Hollywood fact-fudging.

It's instructive that comedies have earned so few Best Picture nominations, let alone wins. "Annie Hall" and "Shakespeare in Love" are the only two to take the Academy Award in the past half-century, and both have plenty of serious moments that render them more of a dramatic-comedy blend.

In that sense I suppose we should be more appreciative of "Around the World in 80 Days," since it represented a genre that has not gotten its due respect from the Academy.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: "Safe Haven"

It's hard to believe that just a few years ago the phrase "based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks" would've produced only shrugs from most moviegoers. But then "The Notebook" blew up in 2004, making of stars out of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, and creating a burning desire in Hollywood to adapt other books from Sparks' Southern-fried romantic/drama oeuvre.

But here's the thing: there hasn't really been a good movie based on his material since. "Nights in Rodanthe" disappeared without a trace. "Dear John" was a dirge-like bummer, and "The Last Song" and "The Lucky One" were ill-fated coming-of-age projects for tween stars Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron.

Critics hated them, but they had respectable box office tallies for low-budget films, so along comes "Safe Haven" as the next in the Sparks line.

Like "Dear John" it was directed by Lasse Hallström, thrice an Oscar nominee and the rare European filmmaker who seems to embrace the more saccharine aspects of Hollywood moviemaking, at his own peril.

The result is a great-looking, sun-dappled story about life on the North Carolina coast that's also devoid of much dramatic or emotional heft.

It's about a woman on the run, hiding out from the law after being accused of a brutal, bloody murder. Needless to say, she falls in love with a local dreamboat, starts putting down roots and feeling secure before her haunted past shows up on her adopted doorstep.

A big part of the movie's problem is Julianne Hough in the lead role. The "Dancing with the Stars" star has mostly done song-and-dance pictures like "Footloose" and "Rock of Ages," and simply doesn't possess the sort of dramatic acting tools for a part like this.

We know from the get-go that Katie was an abused woman who went on the lam after stabbing her attacker, so the screenplay (by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens) requires her to go through some pretty major transformations -- from self-doubting victim to new gal in town coming out of her shell to strong, resourceful woman ready to take the next steps in life.

But Hough's placid exterior is more shy cheerleader than woman rising up.

Josh Duhamel is better as Alex, who runs Ryan's Port Market in Southport, N.C. He's a young single dad raising two moppets after cancer took his wife. He's been keeping his head down, he says, just trying to make a life for his kids, and when he falls for Katie it's like lifting his head up again for the first time.

Noah Lomax plays Josh, who's on the cusp of adolescence and testing his dad, the self-appointed protector of his mother's memory. Mimi Kirkland as Lexie reaches a level of adorableness heretofore unseen in cinematic children.

Katie gets a waitressing job at Ivan's, the local seafood shack, and begins a tenuous friendship with her neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders). When Alex, noticing that Katie trudges daily from her remote cottage to the shoreline every day, gives her an old bicycle, it's Jo who instructs her that refusing gifts south of the Mason-Dixon line is a no-no -- particularly not from wounded widowers who somehow find the time to keep their abs sculpted.

The story keeps shifting back to Tierney (a creepily effective David Lyons), the Boston detective who treats tracking down Katie as much more than a standard domestic murder case. "Nobody is innocent," he insists. "We bring 'em in, and the other guy sorts 'em out."

Things lead to a fairly predictable place, and an outcome that is never truly in doubt. Naysayers may dismiss Sparks' books as pap for undiscriminating mass consumption, but I think there's the bones of a good story in "Safe Haven." It just needed a different cast and crew to find it.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review: "Amour"

Please take note of the photo I chose to accompany this film review. The best available images I could find showed the same moment from "Amour" from different angles, with Jean-Louis Trintignant caressing the face of Emmanuelle Riva. The most popular image showed the face of Riva, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, from over Trintignan's shoulder.

I specifically opted for the reverse angle, where we see Trintignan's face and not Riva's, to demonstrate what I think is a fallacy about the tremendous reception given to "Amour." To wit: Trintignant is the star, not Riva. And it is his performance critics and groups like the Academy Awards should be spotlighting, not hers.

I have not been shy about suggesting that I believe Riva and Quvenzhané Wallis from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" were nominated simply so the Academy could have a talking point about "the youngest and the oldest Best Actress nominees ever." Wallis did not deserve a nomination because hers was the performance of a talented 6-year-old, based on behavior, not craftsmanship.

For Riva, the answer is even simpler: hers is not even a leading performance, it is a supporting one.

As Anne Laurent, an elderly French woman slowly dissolving into dementia, Riva essentially acts for 25 minutes, and then slides into the figurative background. She is nearly mute and motionless for the last half of the movie, while the entire story is seen through the eyes of her husband Georges (Trintignant).

Look at the film, written and directed by Michael Haneke, from the perspective of grammar: Anne is the object of the narrative, while Georges is the subject. He acts upon her, while she is largely acted upon.

If one were to come up with a one-sentence summary of "Amour," it would not be, "A French woman succumbs to dementia and is cared for by her husband." It would be, "An elderly French man struggles to cope with the emotional and spiritual burden of caring for his ailing wife."

I say this not in an attempt to diminish the work by Riva, which is indeed quite good, but to simply place it in its proper perspective. The movie belongs to Trintignan, first and last.

Not surprisingly, I had a similar reaction to a Canadian movie with a similar theme from a few years ago, "Away From Her." In a bit of repeated history, that film also saw the female lead nominated for an Oscar while the male lead was ignored. I have persistently, if unsuccessfully, lobbied that that film's title should be corrected to "Away From Him."

"Amour" is a lovely piece of filmmaking, with all-around terrific acting. Isabelle Huppert also has a small role as their daughter Eva, who is middle-aged and busy, and treats her mother's illness as a tremendous inconvenience, without ever being nasty about it.

But is it deserving of all its many accolades, including winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an unexpected raft of Oscar nominations? I would say not.

"Amour" is wonderfully made but terribly unoriginal. We have seen variations of this story so many times before, it's hard not to think about those other, superior films while watching it. In my cattier moments, I have taken to referring to the film as "My Old, Paralyzed Left Foot" and "Million Franc Baby." ("Away From Him, With Subtitles" is a new one that comes to mind.)

I will not deny that "Amour" is a worthwhile cinematic experience, and the often negative tone of this review may mislead you into thinking I am not recommending it. I am.

But for all the myriad honors and awards that have been bestowed on "Amour," I truly believe it is most deserving of one more: Most Overrated Film of the Year.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Video review: "The Sessions" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

I’ve never attempted a double video review before, but the simultaneous release of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Sessions” make for a perfect opportunity. Both are small, heartfelt, exquisitely acted dramas about people living on the margins of their community. And each film was virtually ignored in the Academy Award nominations.

In “The Sessions,” John Hawkes plays Mark, a man in his late 30s who is paralyzed and lives inside an iron lung. Frustrated with his virginity, he retains a sex therapist named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to help bring him into adulthood, as he puts it.

Their story goes on from there, with unintended emotional attachments growing. The film contains a lot of flesh, but writer/director Ben Lewin grabs the audience in the heart, not clutches the loins.

“Perks” may just be the best high school movie of the last two decades. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky, who adapted the film from his own novel, perfectly captures the moods and fears of the teenage soul. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a smart, outcast underclassman who gets taken under the wing of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), a pair of popular but misfit seniors.

Charlie slowly starts to come out of his shell, while Sam and Patrick are beset by their own respective problems. "Perks" is a wonderfully observant portrait of young people forging their identity in the crucible of high school.

In a film year of highs and lows, these two stood head and shoulders above the crowd … despite Oscar’s snub.

Video extras for "Perks" are decent, including a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and some unedited footage. It also boasts two separate commentary tracks, one with Chbosky alone and a second joined by his cast. Commentaries with both the principle actors and filmmakers tend to be the most engaging.

Video details for "The Sessions" were unavailable at press time.

Movie (both films): 3.5 stars out of four
Extras ("Perks"): 3 stars

Monday, February 11, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Eiger Sanction" (1975)

Watching "The Eiger Sanction," I haven't been this embarassed for Clint Eastwood since the chair speech at last year's GOP convention.

This 1975 spy thriller is like a time capsule of every misogynistic, racist and fascist impulse going around the country at the time, an ego buffer for a big movie star. It's the sort of picture where every single female the protagonist encounters wants to sleep with him, and all the male characters are opponents who must be defeated and/or sexually humiliated.

It's like two hours and nine minutes of gooey testosterone slathered across the screen.

In 1975, Eastwood was already 45 years old. He was an established star who didn't break out until his mid- to late 30s -- a pretty common phenomenon in Hollywood. (See Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, etc.) He'd already been an iconic Western gunman and brutal cop Dirty Harry, and was starting to direct his own pictures. I wasn't very familiar with this section of his oeuvre, and thought I'd take a peek.

"The Eiger Sanction" was his fourth stint behind the camera and, I hope, his worst.

The screenplay by Hal Dresner, Warren Murphy and Rod Whitaker was based on the novel by Trevanian, Whitaker's pen name. It involves a college professor/art collector/mountain climber/assassin by the name of Jonathan Hemlock -- which must represent some sort of pinnacle (or nadir) for Ridiculously Conceived Fiction Characters With Even More Ridiculous Names.

It seems that, at the ripe old age of 35, Hemlock has retired from a storied career climbing mountains to teach art at the local university, where he's hit on by an endless stream of co-eds who are willing to trade favors for better grades or whatnot. On the side he buys up famous paintings by Matisse and Pissarro off the black market for $10,000 a pop, which is a pretty good discount even nigh on 40 years ago.

It also seems Dr. Hemlock is a dual retiree, having hung up his wetboy credentials for C-2, a mysterious quasi-government agency headed by a man named Dragon (Thayer David), who is a "pure" albino who can't abide any light whatsoever and must have his entire bodily supply of blood replaced every six months. His number two is Pope (Gregory Walcott), a clownish creep who's always smiling at the wrong things and spouting hateful insults, preferably against blacks and women.

Hemlock is arm-twisted into performing two last "sanctions," or assassinations. He's convinced to do so because these men killed an old spy friend of his, plus the $20,000 he's getting paid. (I guess spies, like paintings, went for a lot cheaper back then -- even adjusted for inflation, that's only about 85 grand.)

The first hit is carried out relatively painlessly, a standard fight scene in a European hotel that ends with some guy taking a short walk out a tall window. What's interesting about it is that Hemlock pretends to be a swishy deliveryman -- if you ever wanted to hear Eastwood do a coquettish accent, here it is -- to scope out the place. Then he goes outside, daringly climbs a drain pipe to an apartment window next door, so that he can then ... walk through the exact same door he just knocked on.

Somewhere in here, Hemlock gets seduced by another C-2 agent named Jemima Brown, which immediately knocks Jonathan Hemlock down a peg on the Ridiculously Named Characters list. Vonetta McGee as Jemima is one of the film's few high points, drawing some real sparks in her scenes with Eastwood. Jemima beds him and then betrays him, but reappears in the final act to cheer him on.

Also showing up is Jack Cassidy as Miles Mellough, an old Hemlock chum-turned-traitor who helped sell out the dead spy friend. Even for 1975 Miles is an egregious homosexual caricature, right down to wearing a reflective shirt unbottoned down to his navel, and carrying around a little frou-frou dog named, I am not making this up, Faggot. Hemlock seems to take a special delight in taking Miles out.

This brings us to the finale of "The Eiger Sanction," the inspiration for its title and the only reason I'm not giving this giant turd one star.

It seems that C-2 can't pinpoint the other killer, other than he's a member of an international team of mountain climbers set to tackle the north face of the Eiger -- one of the most notoriously hard climbs in the world. The idea is to slip Hemlock onto the team, let him figure out who the killer is, and then take him out, making it look like an accident.

Now, think about that for a second. How could a spy agency know the killer was a member of the climbing team, but not know which one? There's only three other guys besides Hemlock, so it's not like they have to investigate an entire troop of suspects. One of the story's many problems is that the spooks, from Dragon on down to Hemlock, seem to be absurdly ineffective at their spycraft.

The mountain climbing scenes are pretty spectacular, featuring some gorgeous cinematography and a few harrowing sequences. "The Eiger Sanction" was one of few Hollywood films before 1980 to depict mountain climbing -- 1956's "The Mountain" with Robert Wagner and Spencer Tracy being one of the rare exceptions. It became something of a fad in the late 1980s and '90s, mostly in awful thrillers just like "Eiger."

I'm just glad Clint Eastwood survived the early, tawdry portion of his career behind the camera long enough to learn better.

1.5 stars out of four

Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: "On the Road"

I'm not quite sure how to judge "On the Road." If it existed on its own as a film, separated from any notion of the seminal Jack Kerouac book, I'd probably dismiss it as rambling and unfocused. But since the Bible of the Beats is defined by its poetic embrace of chaos -- both in life and literary endeavors -- to knock it for its quivery plot would be like criticizing a flamingo for being too pink.

Brazilian director Walter Salles and Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera previously teamed up for "The Motorcycle Diaries," a similar project about young men rambling about the countryside looking for themselves, also based on a book by a person of note (in that case, revolutionary Che Guevara). Since "On the Road" has generally been regarded as unfilmable, perhaps it required a foreign perspective to adequately capture the peculiar rhythms of this quintessential, quirky American tale.

Certainly "On the Road" has verve and gutso. In chronicling the on-again, off-again travels of Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and his best friend/muse Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) during the late 1940s, the actors and filmmakers have probably made as good a translation of the book as possible.

It's a booze-soaked, drug-riddled, sex-filled escapade with no real point other than casting off whatever yokes chain them and seeing what's out there. It captures the pure exhilaration of freedom for its own sake.

Some portions of Kerouac's  narrative are skimmed over or eliminated, while others are pumped up -- particularly those involving Dean's teenage wife (soon to be ex-wife) Marylou, played by "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart. Stewart has a vibrant, erotic presence as a wanton girl who enjoys her escapades with Dean -- including three-ways in bed with some of his friends -- even as she knows it must all come to a crashing end, with her grasping the stick's short end.

One scene, where Marylou and Dean are shaking it to a raucous jazz song as others look on, is scorching hot. Stewart's small but steamy role should do much to banish her adolescent image.

Much of the heart of the book dealt with Sal idolizing Dean as a sort of vagabond holy man, a con artist and liar who nonetheless embraced the concept of living in the moment, and inspired others to do the same. Dean is a car thief, treats women as disposable objects and leeches off his friends, but others are drawn to his audacious individuality.

Hedlund is terrific as Dean, the distilled essence of American manhood, especially his use of his voice to command and compel those around him. Riley is also good in the less showy role of the introspective writer and chronicler of the group. Tom Sturridge has an abbreviated but effective turn as Carlo Marx, a self-destructive poet who struggles with his homoerotic fixation toward Dean, which Dean uses to tease and taunt.

Viggo Mortensen turns up as Old Bull Lee, an older writer and heroin addict who acts as a mentor and father figure to Sal. It's notable that he is the one person who is instinctively disdainful of Dean's flights of fancy, recognizing them as more narcissism than revelation.

Kirsten Dunst plays Camille, Dean's much put-upon second wife; Amy Adams is Lee's mentally fractured wife; Alice Braga is an itinerant love of Sal's; and Elisabeth Moss and Danny Morgan play a recently married couple sundered by Dean's need to always be on the move.

Kerouac lovers probably know that the book "On the Road" was written in long, frenetic sessions using rolls of paper so he wouldn't have to stop typing. The movie erratically but vividly captures that freewheeling sense of losing oneself -- in the act of creation, or consumption, and even self-destruction.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: "Identity Thief"

For a movie that's essentially a gender-scrambled version of "Midnight Run," "Identity Thief" is an amiable rip-off.

Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy play familiar types for them -- he the nice, slightly stiff pushover; her the wild girl with an oversized personality and inability to distinguish when she's crossed the line of social decorum, which is pretty much always.

They get tossed together in an unlikely cross-country road trip, one a straight man and the other a charming scamp. We've seen this sort of casting before in "48 Hours," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and the aforementioned "Run."

The changeup is the antagonists-turned-buddies  are a mixed gender duo. I'd say this adds sexual tension, except that persnickety Sandy (Bateman) isn't even slightly tempted by the Diana, the plus-sized powerhouse who stole his identity.

The setup from screenwriter Craig Mazin is that Sandy, a drone at a Denver finance company, gets fooled by Diana into giving up his personal data. Soon she's collecting Jet Skis and buying the entire bar a round of drinks on Sandy's dime.

When the police (led by Morris Chestnut) put him in the clink and his boss (John Cho) threatens to can him for his supposed misdeeds, Sandy has no choice but to travel down to Florida, find the woman posing as him, and bring her back to Colorado for a reckoning.

(Actually, there are many other choices, but this is the sort of flight of fancy that demands you gate-check the logic centers of your brain before boarding.)

Sandy, who constantly gets kidded about his gender-unspecific name, leaves his devoted family to embark on this quest. He shows his wife (Amanda Peet) Diana's mugshot, pointing out her size as a way of reassurance. "It's hobbit height. I'm going after Bilbo."

It's an entirely predictable ride, with Diana turning out to be an unstable but somewhat pitiable creature. And she's got bigger troubles than Sandy, with no less than three bounty hunters after her. Robert Patrick is the best of the three, turning it into a personal grudge match when they wreck his clunker van. (The other two, an incongruously pretty pair played by T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez, should've been disposed of in rewrites.)

I got a few special chuckles regarding Sandy's complaints about having to travel to Winter Park, Fla., "pretty much the worst place in America" (and my hometown).

Their initial faceoff is a hoot, with Diana nailing Sandy with a karate chop to the neck -- she's wont to do that -- and giving what is probably the shortest foot chase in cinematic history.

As she did with "Bridesmaids," McCarthy takes a showy role and milks it for all it's worth, showing a sharp sense of comedic timing and a willingness to poke fun at herself. Although little moments here and there, like Diana catching on to the derisive sniggers of the posh set, clue us in that there's more depth than her brash, felonious exterior would suggest.

Director Seth Gordon leads his cast through their paces, never surprising us but nearly always entertaining. "Identity Theft" may be a carbon copy of other, better movies, but this facsimile still pleases.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action

21 minutes
In this French-language drama/thriller, an elderly pianist is captured, drugged and forced to relive his experiences from World War II, when he met his beloved wife, and the years after. Is it all an illusion? A cruel medical experiment? Director Yan England’s lyrical meditation on aging and memory is somewhat predictable, but heartrending in its brutal truths. Gérard Poirier’s performance as Henry is terrific.
Score: 3 stars

16 minutes
This terrific little drama features a cast made up entirely of Somali refugees, in a portrait of their homeland that is both daunting and joyful. Asad (Harun Mohammed), a young boy who dreams of being a fisherman, is disgusted by his friends working for the pirates who harass commercial and private vessels. He prefers the company of Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein), a Hemingway-esque old man of the sea who offers advice on catching fish and more. Powerful, emotional and deeply authentic.
Score: 3.5 stars

Death Of A Shadow
20 minutes
Eerily beautiful, elegant and haunting, "Death Of A Shadow" is a Dutch-language fantasy that crosses borders of time, space and human feeling. Nathan Rijckx (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a young bespectacled man who wanders a European village with a strange device in his hands that resembles a camera. By peering through it, he can see people at their moment of death and capture their shadow. He labors at the behest of a shadowy figure who collects these disturbing replicas as art. It's a deal with the devil -- 10,000 days and 10,000 images, in exchange for his own life back. But then he meets a young nurse (Laura Verlinden) who makes him question his quest. Writer/director Tom Van Avermaet has given us a small, grim masterstroke.
Score: 3.5 stars

19 minutes
Quirky and affecting, “Curfew” is about a day in the life of Richie, a young drug addict – which was also supposed to be the last day of his life. He had just opened his wrist with a razor blade when he gets a call from his estranged sister (Kim Allen), begging him to watch her daughter Sophia (a precocious Fatima Ptacek) for the day. He agrees, leading to wonderfully strange excursion as the morose uncle trades jabs and then more genuine exchanges with his spunky niece. Written, directed and starring Shawn Christensen, a born storyteller.
Score: 3.5 stars

Buzkashi Boys
30 minutes
Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz) and Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) are two Afghani boys who are best friends despite being polar opposites. Rafi is the loyal son of a traditional blacksmith, toiling away making ax handles from dawn to dusk. Ahmad is a bastard Kabul street urchin, surviving on scams, an outsized personality and petty theft to get by. They’re united in their love for buzkashi, an ancient sport similar to polo, but played with a dead goat instead of a ball. Both dream of finding their own destinies. But then a tragedy destabilizes their young lives. A fine piece of observational drama.
Score: 3 stars

Review: "Oscar-Nominted Short Films: Animation"

Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”
5 minutes
In this cheeky short from the creators of TV’s “The Simpsons,” baby Maggie is deposited at the Orwellian “Ayn Rand School for Tots.” Denied the elevated bliss of the Gifted class, she is relegated to the mundane hell of “Nothing Special” education, where she rescues a butterfly from a bully. Wordless, lyrical and surprisingly touching.
Score: 3 stars out of four

Adam and Dog
15 minutes
Minkyu Lee’s take on Adam and Eve’s fall from grace is seen through the eyes of a scrappy little dog. The largely hand-drawn animation is simple and elegant in depicting a prehistoric jungle paradise where Adam and the dog scamp and play. When Eve arrives and their banishment follows, it is the dog alone of the animal world who follows them out of Paradise. A subtle salute to man’s (and woman’s) best friend.
Score: 3 stars

6 minutes
This delightful black-and-white romantic fantasia from Pixar depicts a young office drone trying to attract the attention of the winsome gal in the next building. They met briefly on the train platform, resulting in the film’s only splash of color. His efforts leads to a magical flight of paper airplanes that point the way to their (un)likely destination. A beautiful little cinematic gem featuring the ultimate Meet Cute.
Score: 3.5 stars

Head Over Heels
10 minutes
The stop-motion animation is a bit crude, especially when compared to contemporary feature films like “ParaNorman.” But writer/director Timothy Reckart’s little metaphorical paean to love and aging is cute and sweet. An old married couple live upside-down from each other – literally. Their house is divided into M.C. Escher-like configurations, with the floor for her and the ceiling for him (or the other way around, depending on how you look at it). But then something goes bump to turn their lives around.
Score: 2.5 stars

Fresh Guacamole
2 minutes
How much fun can you pack into 101 seconds of film? Plenty, as this clever, experimental piece directed by Adam Pesapane shows. A knife-wielding chef cuts open non-food objects – light bulbs, baseballs, even a grenade – to make a very unique bowl of guac. The hyper-realistic animation is astonishing.
Score: 3 stars

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Video review: "Flight"

“Flight” is one of those movies that keeps throwing you for loops. Some of the loops are satisfying, while others just leave you discombobulated. The overall experience is worthwhile, even though I often found myself having difficulty getting emotionally invested in what was going on.

Denzel Washington plays “Whip” Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot with a substance abuse problem. He drinks like a fish, snorts cocaine and carouses with a flight attendant mere hours before climbing into the cockpit.

Once he’s in the captain’s chair, though, Whip is all business – seasoned, cocksure and steady. In fact, when the plane suffers a serious mechanical failure, he performs a virtually impossible maneuver to land the plane, saving over 100 lives. He’s lauded as a national hero.

But when an investigation reveals that he was stoned at the time, Whip retreats into a cocoon of self-loathing.

Outwardly confident, he rebuffs attempts from the pilot union chief (Bruce Greenwood) and their power lawyer (Don Cheadle) to assist. He falls in with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict decades his junior, as they help shore up each other’s crumbling identities.

Things slowly build to a big government hearing to assign blame for the crash. Will Whip be lauded or reviled? “Flight” is less about one man’s public journey from hero to reprobate than his descent into himself.

Extra features are on the slim side, especially if you opt for the DVD edition. It comes with ... exactly nothing. No goodies at all.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you do get three featurettes on the making of the film, including a blow-by-blow account of how the stomach-churning crash sequence was created. There are also a few Q&As with the cast and crew.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, February 4, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Zombi 2" (1979)

In approaching modern horror films, the first question one has to ask yourself is, "Is this a put-on?"

By that I mean: Is this truly meant to scare me, or is it intended for laughs? American horror in particular has morphed into a reliable scary/funny hybrid, where even in the goriest fare we can expect a host of one-liners and visual jokes. The laughs balance out the screams, the thinking goes.

I believe part of the reason the "Hostel" movies and other examples of the fairly recent "torture porn" movement have gotten so much push back is that they were relentlessly, unironically horrifying. With nothing to break the mood, they were exercises in making the audience feel truly unnerved. (Often through shocking special effects rather than a pervasive feeling of dread ... but that's another column.)

After seeing "Zombi 2," I'm still not quite sure how to take it. There are portions of it that are so utterly absurd and silly, you're thinking to yourself this has got to be a joke. Yet the tone appears to be pretty straightforward, and certainly none of the cast seem to be smirking to themselves. Any laughs that occur would appear to be unintentional.

"Zombi 2" is a Spaghetti Horror, if there is such a thing -- shot mostly in Italy by an Italian crew, but with a largely American and British cast. It was more or less the high point of director Lucio Fulci's long and bloody career in exploitation films -- there's a reason he's known as the international "King of Gore."

In an interesting marketing quirk, it was released in the U.S. titled simply "Zombie," while in Italy it was called "Zombi 2" -- in order to dovetail on the success of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," which itself was released in Italy as "Zombi."

The two films actually had nothing to do with each other, so in some ways this same dynamic was repeated a few years later with the schlock film "Troll 2," whose lowly fate was chronicled in the excellent documentary "Best Worst Movie." That also featured a low-rent Italian director working with an American cast ... obviously a combination that doesn't blend very well.

Story-wise, "Zombi 2" is a pretty straightforward zombie plot, which means putting a small group of people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and seeing what happens. In this case, rich girl Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) seeks out the fate of her missing father, whose sailboat mysteriously ended up in New York harbor with a zombie on board.

Anne and intrepid reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) track the boat's journey back to the remote Caribbean island of Matool. There, British doctor David Menard (Richard Johnson) tries fruitlessly to stem the outbreak of zombies, methodically shooting his patients in the head when they succumb. Dr. Menard also has a wife (Olga Karlatos), whose sole purpose is to appear naked in a shower scene and then be messily eaten.

Tagging along are American couple Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay), who give Anne and Peter a boat ride to Matool and promptly become zombie fodder.

On the way to the island, Susan suddenly decides she needs to indulge in a mostly-nude scuba diving session, which brings us to perhaps the movie's most memorable scene: a fight to the death between an underwater zombie and a Great White shark. It's a totally laughable sequence, complete with a real but drugged up shark, wounds on both combatants that appear and disappear, and a topless girl swimming around to witness it.

This is the breaking point at which one decides whether to enjoy "Zombi 2" as a goofy caper or simply dismiss it as amateurish schlock. (I went the first route.)

The really good zombie sequences don't begin until more than an hour into the 91-minute ride, but they help get things back on track, as well as underlining why the film caused such an uproar -- including being briefly banned in the United Kingdom.

If Sergio Leone loved long, lingering close-ups of his characters' faces, then his countryman Fulci positively fetishized the decay and destruction of human flesh. The makeup effects are still impressive even today, and Fulci was notable for depicting zombies as they actually might look after decades buried in the earth -- rotted, putrid, their orifices crawling with worms. Oh, to be a member of the (largely uncredited) stunt team on this picture.

Fulci also enjoyed very detailed shots of zombies munching into live humans -- the skin, muscle and tendons sloughing away, followed by a geyser of blood voluminous enough to make Quentin Tarantino proud.

Since Fulci fell firmly into the "slow zombie" category of cinematic reanimation, it requires his characters to stand their frozen in horror while the creatures slowly shamble in close enough to bite off a hunk. This only adds to the silliness of the proceedings. Other elements further solidify the decent into accidental comedy, such as:
  1. The survivors throwing Molotov cocktails at the horde, which explode on impact but never seem to set any zombies on fire.
  2. The total disconnect between the non-English-speaking actors' mouth movements and the words coming out of them.
  3. McCulloch's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't bald spot, sporadically hidden by the most extravagant blond comb-over this side of Donald Trump, which is undermined by the tropical heat and zombie-fighting exertions.
So to answer my own question, is this movie really trying to scare me, or just make me laugh? I think the answer is both: striving and failing to be scary, but being uproariously funny while doing so.

If there's any doubt about where the film falls on the goofball/horrifying scale, just look to that zombie/shark fight scene. At one point, the zombie actor actually press his mouth to the shark's side and starts gumming him, like he's trying to see what really fresh sushi tastes like.

For "Zombi 2," it manages to jump the shark while still underwater.

2.5 stars out of four